What interactionism can teach
towards a model of distributed
Richard Jenkins
University of Sheffield
What we can learn from an
interactionist understanding of
towards a distributed model of
vulnerability and resilience
An interactionist understanding of identification...
A process, identification, not a thing, ‘identity’: this is
something that we do, not something that we have.
Identification is a matter of knowing who I am and knowing
who others are: knowing ‘who’s who’ and ‘what’s what’.
Identification is thus a matter of ‘everyday epistemology’.
An interaction - during interaction - between internal selfidentification and external categorisation by others.
Definitively a social process: identification is never
unilateral, and selfhood, therefore, is interactional, and
anything but self-standing and self-resourcing.
Identification is, in principle, not fixed or static.
But...some identifications are very robust: primary
identifications, definitively embodied identifications, and
authoritative identifications.
Whose identification counts? The importance of power.
Role of identification in allocation of resources and
penalties (labelling).
What’s the relevance of this model of identification
for the topic of this conference?
To begin with the self, and with the ‘disabled self’...
Selfhood is clearly closely linked to identification:
self-identification and categorisation by others.
Selfhood is the awareness of who we are, as individuals,
without which there would be no reflexive human
It is central to ‘knowing who’s who’...we can’t know others
unless we know ourselves, and vice versa.
But selfhood isn’t autonomous: it is learned, maintained
and transformed in the course of interaction with others.
...And the maintenance and transformation of selfhood is at
the heart of whatever it is that we call ‘mental health’.
So, how does the maintenance and transformation of
selfhood occur during interaction?
The presentation of self, á la Goffman, which depends on
validation by others...
Routine maintenance of existing identifications and
‘Trying out’ new identifications and narratives
Concealing or compartmentalising identifications and
narratives (Simmel and life in the metropolis)
But not all interaction is mutually validating...
The refusal of recognition
The imposition of identifications and narratives
Distances open up between self-identification(s) and
categorisation(s) by others
Particularly authoritative others...
Problematising one’s knowledge of who’s who and what’s
Knowledge of who’s and what’s what may be threatened or
completely undermined
Issues of everyday epistemology, which can quickly become
issues of everyday competence and self-identification, and
vulnerable selfhood.
Epistemological authority...and epistemological dislocation
There are many potential scenarios in which this kind of
epistemological dislocation can occur...
Migration to new cultural contexts
Legal and political vulnerability
These come together in the contemporary asylum-seeking
situation, for example
Other epistemological dislocations of the everyday world...
Rapid social change
Warfare and civil conflict
Relationship conflicts
Life-course transitions
Intellectual disability
Certain kinds of drug use
The point is not to suggest that epistemological dislocation
is the only factor in mental health problems
Nor to deny the role of possible physiological and organic
So, what is the point?
Mental health problems are not randomly distributed in the
population: gender, class, social situation and ethnicity
Vulnerability, in other words, seems to be distributed in
particular ways
So are epistemological authority and competence, in terms
of cognitive, cultural, social, legal and political resources.
The interactional links between the two, within networks
and institutions, requires exploration
It is not just a matter of vulnerability, either.
Resilience is also at stake here, because that’s not random,
Role of interaction within social networks as an
epistemological resource: social support (capital) is not just
an emotional matter, not just a social matter, not just an
economic matter...
Need to explore again some of the insights of
interactionism, the labelling perspective in the sociology of
deviance, and even R D Laing (ontological security)
Everyday epistemology
Everyday epistemological authority
Everyday epistemological dislocation

identification - University of Nottingham